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The coming of the Big 4

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Four major new phones are about to be released in South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK highlights the key differentiators in the devices from Samsung, Sony, HTC and BlackBerry.

By the end of this month, South Africans will have the most dazzling choice of high-end flagship phones yet seen in this country. The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 on April 25 will be the most high-profile, but it won’t be the only game in town.

And there will be very few surprises. The phones in question have all been officially announced, and their features trumpeted at length.

The big new contendors, along with the S4, are the Sony Xperia Z, the HTC One and the BlackBerry Q10. Time spent with prototypes or release versions of each of these does not, unfortunately, translate into being spoilt for choice: rather, it raises the bar on the confusion factor.

While the following brief overview may help resolve some of the confusion, anyone in the market for a new phone must choose what works on a personal level rather than what anonymous advisors are pushing.

The phone that will be pushed hardest is the Samsung Galaxy S4, thanks to Samsung’s global advertising budget now exceeding that of Coca-Cola. That shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the hype exceeding the reality, though. The S4 is all that.

As outlined previously in this column, it has a dazzling screen, measuring 5‚” across, and using a Full HD Super AMOLED display with a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch (ppi).

It is 7.9 mm thick and weighs only 130g, but packs in a 1.9GHz quad-core processor, Li-Ion 2600 mAh battery, 13 megapixel rear camera and 2 megapixel front camera. A barometer, temperature and humidity gauge turns the phone into a personal weather station.

Gesture control comes into its ownon the S4. Air View allows files to be opened simply by hovering a stylus above them, and Smart Scroll allows the screen to be browsed using only the eyes and a tilting movement.

The closest contendor to the S4 is the Sony Xperia Z, but there isn’t much to choose between them. The Z is also 7.9mm thin with a 5‚” screen, 1920 x 1080 screen resolution and 441 ppi display. A 13 megapixel camera uses HDR (High dynamic range) imaging for combining a series of images with different exposures into single photos.

A 1.5GHz chip and 2330 mAh battery rounds out the hardware specs that help it keep up with the S4. It doesn’t have the gimmicky weather features of the S4, but it does have a secret weapon: Sony’s Walkman legacy. While we are unlikely to see a new version of the world’s first portable music player, the Walkman lives on as an app on the phone, rich with features that were undreamed of in the days of the Walkman cassette player.

The fundamental difference between the two phones is the feel in the hand. The Z is sharp and angular, while the S4 is curved and rounded.

That is the one element that sets the HTC One apart. It has ‚”only‚” a 4.8‚” screen. But it is ingeniously designed with receding curves that result in it feeling a lot smaller in the hand than a mere 0.2‚” screen size difference would suggest. It is easier to operate with one hand, and this is probably the key feature that won over American critics, typically an iPhone-fawning audience, who have fallen head-over-heels in love with the device.

However, it competes on most other specs, with 468 ppi display, 1.7GHz processor and 2300 mAh battery. It has an edge when it comes to sound, with dual frontal speaker using Beats Audio.

Is that enough to compete? Only if it gets its act together on the marketing front, where it has been badly let down when previous phones also matched up to the best.

Rounding out the new Big 4, the BlackBerry Q10 has the advantage of arriving in the wake of the BlackBerry Z10. It adds a QWERTY keyboard alternative to the BlackBerry 10 operating system (hence Q10), and will hold immense appeal to existing BlackBerry users who are hesitant to make the switch to full touch-screen.

For this audience and it is a substantial one in South Africa the phone will be a revelation. Along with the Z10, it spells the end of hanging phones and hard reboots the need for battery removal that plagues the older versions. Its integration with BlackBerry World and smooth apps management also enhances the traditional experience.

It allows for separation of a home and work profile, meaning it meets companies’ network security needs while allowing for a personal experience away from the office.

In other words, this phone is less about the specs than about an ecosystem that makes sense to its users.

That’s one feature hardware specs alone can’t deliver.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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